Tracy Michelle Arnold and Marcus Truschinski in <i>The Gift of the Magi</i>.
The American Players Theatre production of The Gift of the Magi, which opened Sunday night, is a departure for a number of reasons. It's the acclaimed Spring Green company's first cold-weather show, made possible by the indoor theater christened last year. It's the only musical I can remember APT doing.
And instead of, say, the complexity of Shakespeare or the searing devastation of an O'Neill play, Gift, based on the famous O. Henry short story, has an earnest, homespun sweetness. That last quality is its virtue, yet also its shortcoming.
The adaptation is the work of APT core company actor James DeVita, who penned the script, and Josh Schmidt, who wrote the music. The two collaborated on song lyrics.
Main characters Della and Jim, who make substantial sacrifices to demonstrate their love to one another, are played by real-life married couple Tracy Michelle Arnold and Marcus Truschinski. In the early 20th century, the two are making their way in an America much like our own: a place where "anything is possible," yet times are tough for many.
Brian Mani takes on the role of O. Henry himself, a wry, on-stage narrator who is sometimes seen -- but mostly not -- by Jim and Della, as well as various smaller roles (butcher, tailor, and so forth).
The play's simplicity and lack of artifice carry through to the music: violist Nick Ehlinger and cellist Eric Miller appear onstage and are even drawn into the world of the play at one point as a pair of street musicians. The Spartan accompaniment is one of the highlights of the play; Broadway-style bombast would have been all wrong. The modest virtues extolled in Gift -- working hard, saving, appreciating what you have and those you love -- find an echo in the seeming simplicity of the music.
For regular APT playgoers, hearing familiar cast members sing can be a touch jarring. One identifies APT with dramatic plays, not musicals, and the cast's singing is uneven, though Arnold's singular speaking voice -- low, a bit cutting, yet oddly appealing -- translates into a fascinating singing voice, even as notes get wobbly.
Yet my favorite singer on opening night was actually violist Ehlinger, during a number in the second act. As he finger-picks his viola, he's joined by Truschinski in a refrain that urges us to "walk on through to the lucky side...there but for the grace of God go I." For a show opening Thanksgiving weekend, it's a fitting sentiment that is made no less important by its familiarity. In challenging times, we -- like Della and Jim -- may have more to give than we believe at first.
The show's biggest fault is a lack of narrative drive: virtually everyone knows how the story will turn out, and it's a stretch to turn such a brief tale into a 90-minute musical. Furthermore, scenes of shopping, counting change and budgeting just are not compelling.
Gift represents a worthwhile risk, however, to see if there's an audience for a winter show in Spring Green. With trees outside APT's Touchstone Theatre lit festively, crackling fires, music in the lobby and post-show treats, APT conjured a festive atmosphere and perhaps the beginning of a holiday tradition.